Venezuela military suffers post-coup blow as four generals die in crash

Saturday, April 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Venezuela's new air force commander and three other generals died in a helicopter crash, officials said Saturday, adding to the blows suffered by a military already split by a failed coup last week.

Even as President Hugo Chavez tries to reassert the control over Venezuela that he briefly lost last weekend, the country's largest labor federation on Saturday announced plans for a massive march on May Day. The same union sponsored a march that led to the April 11 coup.

Gen. Luis Alfonso Acevedo was among 10 airmen who were killed Friday when their helicopter crashed in forests, likely due to bad weather, the military said.

Acevedo, who took over as air force commander in post-coup shake-ups, was in one of three French-built Super Puma helicopters carrying top officers back from the installation of a new navy commander at Mamo, 20 miles north of Caracas.

A helicopter carrying the highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Lucas Rincon, darted through a gap in the mountains beneath clouds and landed safely, said Air Force Gen. Gustavo Romero Castillo, who was aboard Rincon's helicopter.

But ``there was a sudden change in weather conditions'' as the clouds moved in and the chopper carrying Acevedo's party crashed about 6 p.m., Romero told a news conference.

There were no immediate signs of mechanical problems or foul play, but Gen. Gilberto Vallenilla told the news conference that the air force would investigate the cause.

Also killed were Brig. Gens. Pedro Torres Fino, the air force operations commander, Rafael Quintana Bello, personnel chief, and Julio Cesar Ochoa, who worked for the general staff, and six lower-ranking personnel, including two who were piloting the craft.

Defense Minister Jose Rangel said it was ``too early'' to say who would replace Acevedo, who was named Air Force chief on April 17, replacing Gen. Regulo Alselmi, who seemingly played little or no part in the April 11-12 coup or the restoration of Chavez on April 14 after loyalist protests in which 33 people died.

At least five other top-ranking officers are under house arrest while courts consider possible charges against them. Officials have said that at least 80 were held at least briefly after the coup. The coup figurehead, businessman Pedro Carmona, also is under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan Workers Confederation president Carlos Ortega emerged from a week of hiding on Saturday, calling on Chavez to disarm his civilian supporters and to include critics within his cabinet.

``If we Venezuelans can't reach some kind of agreement, we are headed, unfortunately, painfully and irreversibly, toward a civil war,'' Ortega told a news conference.

The confederation organized an anti-Chavez march by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans on April 11 that ran into gunfire _ each side blames the other _ that killed 16 people. Coup leaders said Chavez's downfall began when officers balked at his order to send troops against the demonstrators.

Ortega said his confederation planned another large march on the traditional labor celebration May Day, but he said it would focus on labor issues rather than demands for Chavez's ouster.

The labor union has been at odds with Chavez since the president tried to remove its leaders, first by promoting laws for open union elections and then by sponsoring rivals. In a rare defeat for Chavez, Ortega's ticket won an easy victory, but the president had refused to negotiate with him.

After the coup, Ortega dropped out of sight, fearing arrest or attacks. But he said Chavez's aides assured him he was safe and offered to open a dialogue.